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'Road Map' Flaws Exposed
The Los Angeles Times, 15 June 2003
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COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Last week's tragic exchange of
bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians revealed three things about the
prospects for peace: The Aqaba conference didn't change the parties'
self-defeating propensity for tit-for-tat killing; the "road map" has
serious flaws that could ultimately undermine its implementation; and for
the process to succeed, President Bush will have to make the Middle East a
One central problem in the road map is that it asks each
side to take steps toward peace before knowing how the critical issues - the
fate of Palestinian refugees, borders, settlements, Jerusalem, water - will
be resolved. This means that every step will be fitfully taken out of the
fear that it will undermine one's leverage for the next one. The certain
knowledge that the opposition on both sides will challenge their leaders'
every step exacerbates the situation. The same kind of dynamic helped
undermine the Oslo accords, which aimed to build confidence incrementally.
Instead, it gave Israeli and Palestinian militants bountiful opportunities
to undermine the process.
In many ways, the road map faces more obstacles than the
Oslo agreements. Among the things going for it is that most Israelis and
Palestinians have reconciled themselves to the two-state solution. But the
growing perception on both sides that peace is ultimately impossible may
become an insurmountable hurdle.
At times during the Oslo process, the relationship between
former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Authority
President Yasser Arafat enabled them to conspire to undermine their
opponents at home. No such relationship exists among today's leaders. Every
move is perceived as tactical, designed to deflect international pressure
and maneuver for a better bargaining position. Palestinians who see in
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon the man responsible for the Sabra and
Shatila massacres in Lebanon in 1982 refuse to believe he has changed. And
most Israelis believe that even though Mahmoud Abbas is the Palestinian
Authority's prime minister, Arafat remains the real power behind the scenes
and facilitates suicide bombers. Trust has all but disappeared.
The failure of the Oslo process, after seven years of
negotiations, has made Israelis and Palestinians even more impatient. In the
early days of Oslo, when optimism prevailed, both sides were willing to
accept mere promises. Today, meetings, conferences, handshakes and words are
occasions for cynicism. Promises are dismissed. Only acts count - violent
acts, it seems.
What sustains the cycle of grief and killing is the
belief, paradoxical as it may seem, that retaliation is the only way to
prevent the situation from further deteriorating. If one side doesn't
respond to provocation, the thinking goes, the other will think it weak and
hit it even harder. Any attempt to move toward peace cannot succeed unless
this self-defeating dynamic is overcome.
The Bush administration's success in pushing for change
within the Palestinian Authority has shifted attention to what it can do to
persuade Sharon to move forward. Abbas has said all the right things, and
probably means them. His conciliatory speech in Aqaba - in which he
denounced violence, committed himself to disarm militants and omitted
references to such emotional issues as the right of return - boosted his
stature in the U.S. and in Israel. But it undermined his already low
standing at home.
Even within the Palestinian Authority and among
Palestinian moderates, Abbas is regarded as America's man. Most Palestinians
reject disarming the militants before they see some real changes in their
own lives, like Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities. Disarmament,
they fear, will clear the way for Sharon's plans - even as Israel fears that
any withdrawal before the violence ends would weaken its hand.
The inequality of power between Israelis and Palestinians
complicates implementation of the road map. The Israeli army controls
Palestinian land and is able to punish Palestinians if they don't comply
with the road map. It can refuse to withdraw from Palestinian cities, as
well as impose curfews, arbitrarily establish checkpoints and make life in
general miserable for the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority has no
answer for such power, which enables militant groups to gain some measure of
public support for their horrible deeds. This is one reason why
international mediation, including an effective monitoring role, will be
indispensable to the implementation of any peace plan.
Certainly, the Palestinians must end the suicide bombings,
which are both immoral and self-defeating. But Abbas needs two things to
accomplish that goal. First, the Palestinian Authority's security forces
must be rebuilt. In the past 2 1/2 years of violence, they, along with many
Palestinian institutions, have been devastated by the Israeli army. Second,
Abbas must attract the Palestinian public to his side, and for that he needs
Israeli and international support. For his part, and without jeopardizing
Israel's security, Sharon could dismantle a good number of settlements. Just
as suicide bombings have undermined Israeli confidence in Palestinian
intentions, so have settlements eroded Palestinian hopes that Israel will
withdraw from Palestinian lands.
Although progress toward peace will largely depend on the
parties themselves, U.S. mediation, to be successful in this difficult
environment, cannot be done on the cheap. Every step called for in the road
map requires spending political capital abroad and at home, possibly at the
expense of other issues. The Bush administration's commitment to peace,
expressed most clearly at Aqaba, faces an early test. If it cannot persuade
Sharon to refrain from militarily responding to every attack against it and
to dismantle promptly the few settlement outposts that his government deems
unauthorized, the road map is doomed to remain on the drawing boards. These
challenges are small compared with those that lie ahead.
Shibley Telhami is Anwar Sadat
Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and senior
fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution.
Distributed by Common Ground News Service / Middle East